Early morning, East Java. The cold air is still and silent atop Mt. Kawah Ijen, home to Indonesia’s largest sulphur mine. A flame flickers from a makeshift torch fashioned out of a plastic bottle, lighting our way down the jagged edges of the crater. A miner takes my hand as we descend. Hati-hati - Be careful, he tells me.
We have climbed from the base of the volcano for over an hour. It is still dark. The steep decline into the crater makes my already tired legs weaker. I slowly navigate my way down as the sun rises over boulders and sharp rocks. Further down, toxic gasses spew out of the basin. The strong smell of sulphur becomes more intense. I put my mask on.
At the bottom of the crater the activity is startling. Miners dive in and out of the gas clouds, protected only by small pieces of fabric covering their mouths. Armed with a metal shaft, they break large pieces of sulfur from the wall of the crater. With temperatures reaching 200 degrees centigrade the sulphuric gasses burn their lungs, skin and eyes. From a distance it is a place of staggering beauty. Close up, it’s hell.
Large chunks of sulfur are loaded into wooden baskets. Once filled, a long and painful walk ensues for the miners. To reach the weighing station they will have to climb 250 meters to the rim of the crater, an abstract path traced by memory alone. The journey continues in a steep descent for three kilometers through humid jungle. Each miner carries a load of approximately 70 - 100kg, and to make ends meet they often make the trip twice per day.
Non of the miners are employed on a permanent basis. They work by the day, and get paid by the load. Fourteen tons of sulphur are produced every day at Kawah Ijen. The refined sulphur is later exported, mainly to China, but also to Southeast Asia and several other countries around the globe. Sulphur is a key material in the production of vulcanised rubber, refined sugar and sulphuric acid, and can be found in medicines, cosmetics, matches and fertilisers.
To these industries the miners remain faceless. These men are at the bottom of the chain, paying the highest price. Their life expectancy is, at most, 50 years. This is the world they live in.